In 1613 a Scottish officer named George Learmonth left Balcomie Castle in Fife and travelled to Poland. From Poland he went to Russia, where he stayed and changed his name into Lermontov, a name that was to become legendary in the world of Russian literature.
200 years later, on the 15th of October in 1814 to be exact, the poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov was born in Moscow.
And 400 years after George Learmonth left Scotland, one of his Russian descendants, Maria Koroleva, returned to Scotland to find out more about her own and Mikhail Lermontov’s Scottish roots. She had raised money for a Mikhail Lermontov memorial to be put up in the Scottish village of Earlston and she even designed a special “Lermontov Bicentenary” tartan to mark the 200th anniversary of Lermontov’s birth.
Thomas the Rhymer
In order to fit Earlston into the Lermontov family history we need to go back in time even further: about 800 years ago a certain Thomas of Ercildoune was born in Earlston, which was called ‘Ercildoune’ back then. This Scottish laird became well known as Thomas the Rhymer or Thomas Learmont, a prophet, or ’seer’, who wrote his prophesies in verse. According to the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, which was later successfully retold by Sir Walter Scott, he received the gift of prophesy from the queen of Elfland. Yes, a fairy. The Learmonths claim to descend from Thomas the Rhymer.
Mikhail Lermontov was well aware of his Scottish heritage and most likely it was this awareness that sparked his poetic aspirations. At the very least it was a source of inspiration for him. Like most writers at the time, he was a big admirer of Sir Walter Scott, Ossian* and George Byron, all Scottish of course. He never had the opportunity in his tragically short life to visit Scotland, but he did visit it in his poems, such as Ossian’s Grave (Гроб Оссиана) and A Wish (Желание).
The poet of the Caucasus
However, Lermontov became mostly associated with the Caucasus, the region where the vast majority of his work is set, and where he spent a lot of time, both in his childhood and during his military career and exile. The rugged and spectacular mountain landscape must have reminded him of the Scottish landscapes that he knew only through the works of Scott and Ossian. It can even be said that Lermontov did for the Caucasus what Sir Walter Scott did for Scotland; his beautiful and lively descriptions of the region continue to inspire travellers and readers to this day.
Although it cannot be said with certainty that Mikhail Lermontov is a descendant of Thomas the Rhymer, he seems to have had the same talent for prophetic verse; in the poem The Dream he pictures his own death in eerily accurate detail.
Lermontov’s fame and reputation in Russia is second only to Pushkin. He was hugely influential both as a romantic poet and as the writer of the first great Russian psychological novel, A Hero of Our Time.
And so Lermontov is not only ‘the poet of the Caucasus’, but also ’the most Scottish of the Russian writers’.
*Ossian – in Lermontov’s lifetime Ossian had not yet been proven to be a fabrication of James Macpherson.
In order to celebrate Lermontov’s birthday today, I picked up a nice collection of his poetry: After Lermontov – Translations for the Bicentenary, edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack. Many of the poems in this collection are translated by Scottish poets and translators, and some are even translated into Scots.
P.S. The Scottish Poetry Library has just brought it to my attention that they made a podcast about this very subject in 2014. In this podcast several of the contributors of After Lermontov – Translations for the Bicentenary talk about Lermontov and, even better, recite some of the poems in the collection. I loved it and recommend it highly.
Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020